Reversed Cards in Tarot Readings

Whenever my son sees Le Pendu, he always turns it upside down, telling me “This is the right way! He’s upside down the other way!”

I think this topic gets almost as much attention as the perennial question/complaint of “How to read the court cards.”

The debate of “to read or not to read” reversals is one that can trigger lots of differing responses from tarot readers. I bring it up now because I’ve recently changed my “policy” on reading reversals, and to show you my own thought process on this.

As a point of clarification, reversals simply refer to when a card in a spread is upside down when it gets turned over, rather than right side up. This can happen either because the card was randomly flipped over during the mixing and shuffling process, or, because the reader deliberately cut and turned the cards in order to purposely invite reversals into the reading.

When I first started learning, I didn’t read reversals, because I didn’t want to overwhelm myself with an additional 78 meanings for the cards. That actually worked quite well for me so that I wasn’t distracted from grasping the main aspects of the images themselves.

As time went on and I felt that I understood the images sufficiently well, I decided to explore using reversals in my readings. I didn’t like the idea of purposely cutting and turning the deck prior to turning over the cards, because I don’t like to purposely introduce anything “deliberate” during the shuffling and mixing process; I prefer the mixing process to be as random as possible. I like things to be organic and I especially pay attention to unexpected things such as when cards jump out of the deck during the shuffling. In my experience I’ve always found those cards to be particularly meaningful in the reading, and on many occasions I’ve seen them turn up again in the actual spread, after additional shuffling.

The first issue to examine when deciding to read reversed cards is how to treat them, how to interpret them. There are various schools of thought. Traditional interpretations assign a “reversed” meaning to the original meaning of the card itself, oftentimes changing the original meaning into something challenging or downright negative.

Another tactic is to interpret a reversal as an “internalizing” of that card’s energy rather than an external manifestation.

In my own use of reversals, I always preferred to interpret the reversal as a sort of watered-down, not yet fully ripe, or a “boiling under the surface” manifestation of that energy, or, a distortion of the energy to the point that it was being expressed in an unhealthy or unproductive way. A practical example of this could be the Queen of Cups. When I see the Queen of Cups upright in a reading, I see her as an emotionally nurturing and intuitive person who is able to constructively provide emotional support, guidance, and acceptance. In a reversed position, this Queen can become emotionally manipulative, needy, or overly sensitive to the point of becoming even narcissistic.

Sometimes the energy reversed is simply an energy that is being worked out in the querent’s life and hasn’t yet reached the point where it can be put into play, into the world, and/or released. This would be similar to the idea of the energy being at an internal stage rather than an external stage.

Now, there was a point in time where I felt that reversals were absolutely of fundamental importance in a reading. Reason being, like the example of the Queen of Cups, they could change the meaning of a card and its implications on the spread in such a dramatic fashion, that it seemed like something essential would be missing if I didn’t take a reversed card into account in this way.

Recently, however, I’ve had a change of heart, which has frankly surprised me. In the past six months, I’ve met and worked with a handful of truly exceptional readers, and in so doing, I’ve assimilated some experiences from their approaches which have influenced me to the point that I no longer want to read reversed cards.

By saying that I need to clarify: this doesn’t mean I wouldn’t take a “reversed” meaning into account. What it does mean is that I believe at this point in my practice, I’m arriving at a relationship with the cards that is becoming so holistic that the actual orientation of the card on the table is no longer a determining factor in how I’ll delineate that card for a querent. I’m beginning to see the cards as malleable and multi-faceted in each and every individual reading, and as such, the upright or reversed position doesn’t have as much bearing for my interpretations as much as the overall tableau of cards and the context of the question or situation itself. I see this as a natural progression of my own personal style of reading the cards, and for now it’s what I’m working with.

Because I was surprised by this emerging change in my approach, I decided to ask my colleagues Miguel and Paulinnhhooo their thoughts and practices as well. In fact, neither Miguel nor Paulinnhhoo use reversals either, which I found interesting.

Miguel says:

I normally don’t use reversals. When I started learning tarot, I was doing them, but then I noticed that I would base my interpretation on the orientation of the card instead of basing it on the image. I felt like such a crunch I ended up not using them at all.
Nowadays, I feel that there’s always two sides for every coin (and sometimes even three). And there’s no problem in placing yourself in a position where you don’t have to evaluate if what you’re seeing is heads or tails. However, I feel that the reader should position hirself in such a way that he can see both sides of the coin as best as possible and determine if you’re seeing heads, tails or maybe, that you’ve caught that rare case when the coin lands on its feet.

Beautiful reference there to Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies, if you haven’t read it!

So, the question remains: to read or not to read reversals?

My own personal opinion now is rather similar to that of Miguel’s. When we start to see the card in its entirety, where the image is more than a series of keywords but is rather a mutable conveyor of information that changes in each and every reading based on all the myriad factors that change in the circumstances surrounding each and every reading, I believe that reversals become no more relevant or irrelevant than the card upright. An experienced reader can take all the possible meanings into consideration, as well as even meanings he or she possibly never considered before, and arrive at a narrative that suits the querent’s concern, without being boxed in to traditional constraints that could limit the scope of the information delivered. Clearly each card has a narrative basis, but how that narrative basis is interpreted and conveyed in the narrative is the heart of our craft. This is where a skilled reader can bring the querent into a constructive dialogue in which he or she becomes personally engaged with the images and can play a significant participatory role in assigning meaning to his or her own narrative.

One thing however that I think most readers would agree with: once you’ve decided whether or not to specifically read reversals, don’t change the cards once they’re on the table. In other words, whichever method you decide to employ, make sure you’re consistent until you consciously decide to work in a different way.

Your thoughts?


2 thoughts on “Reversed Cards in Tarot Readings

  1. Great Shelley. It’s good to see you’re paying attention. Whether the cards elicit a ‘reversed’ meaning or not has little to do with the actual position of the card on the table, that is, being reversed on the table or not. The ‘reversed’ meaning comes out of the way in which a card enters into relation with the other cards. The Queen of Cups can elicit a ‘reversed’ meaning even when the card is upright, if the card happens to fall next to another card that might indicate what you suggest, a manipulative streak. What generates meaning is always the approach to how you read the cards, not the individual cards by themselves. In the end, if we talk about differences in reading the cards, what we actually talk about is different reading practices and protocols. For instance, it never ever occurs to me to read tarot card by card. Rather, I prefer to make a synthesis based on several cards taken together, which means that in my tarot world-view the whole ‘reversal’ idea is not only unnecessary but also downright ludicrous.

  2. In Marcus Katz’s general observation of thirds: that of readers a third use reversals, a third do not, and a third use them indifferently, I fit into the indifferent category. Generally the way cards get pulled from the deck and turned over varies in so many ways that for most readings I will set them as upright.
    When I do read reversals I sometimes read them hallucinogenicly as abstract images seeking to insert some degree of their design into the overall picture. This is my sense of the subversive form of reading. Reading the Marseille style decks I am often lost on how to read the even swords and wands cards generally. I read the odd swords as hilt down as upright. Unfortunately wands are not quite as accommodating.
    Because I enjoy reading the cards each time based on a selective analysis of elements of the images as they correspond and metamorphize with analogus images in contiguous cards, I do not consistently assign meanings to any particular card.
    I agree it’s more difficult to do readings this way. But it is also makes reading the cards a challenge each time to see what is uniquely present in this existential situation.

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